As Montana approves a wider array of lethal wolf regulations, including baiting and snaring, two conservation groups from Idaho and Montana are asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the species’ potential for survival.

On Wednesday, the Missoula-based Endangered Species Coalition and the Idaho Conservation League sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Martha Williams, asking them to take two immediate steps to keep gray wolves from being decimated in the Northern Rockies.

First, the Fish and Wildlife Service should conduct a population status review of the wolf in light of the recent changes in wolf management made by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Idaho Fish and Game.

Second, the Fish and Wildlife Service should start another post-delisting monitoring period, and the groups are proposing that it last 10 years. Normally, after a species is delisted, state wildlife biologists must monitor the population for the following five years, during which the species could be relisted if the population decreases again. Congress delisted the wolf in 2011, and Fish, Wildlife & Parks conducted annual wolf counts until 2017 as part of the post-delisting monitoring.

Derek Goldman, Endangered Species Coalition Northern Rockies representative, said the petition is partly in response to the FWP commission’s approval of additional lethal methods on Friday, but the groups were already working on it after Montana and Idaho passed the legislation that prompted the new regulations.

“Rereading that 2009 delisting rule, I saw that clause that one of the prompts for the Fish and Wildlife Service to initiate a status review is changes in state law or management that threatens the wolf population. The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t have to wait until the population drops to 150 wolves to initiate the status review,” Goldman said. “The idea is to highlight that (clause) for the FWS – ‘You have a responsibility here; you approved state management plans a decade ago.’ What’s happening now in these states is a significant departure from what they agreed on and what the FWS approved.”

When the FWS first proposed delisting in 2009, wolf populations in Montana, Idaho and Montana had met the minimum population criteria of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs in each state.

It should be noted that a population of 150 wolves does not ensure that 15 breeding pairs exist. Wolves have a highly developed social structure where only a pack’s alpha male and female breed. If one or the other is killed, it may be a year or more before another male and female bond to form a pack. Meanwhile, the remainder of the pack can scatter and get into trouble with humans without experienced adults to teach them how to stay safe.

Montana’s measured wolf management plan received immediate FWP approval followed by Idaho. Wyoming initially declared it would treat wolves as vermin, allowing them to be shot on sight, poisoned or run down with snowmobiles. So the Fish and Wildlife Service kept wolves there in protected status until 2017.

For the past decade, Montana has had a fairly liberal wolf season, allowing the wolf harvest to increase to a high of 328 wolves in 2020, according to FWP administrator Ken McDonald.

But earlier this year, using the unproven claim that wolves kill too many elk in western Montana, the 2021 Montana Legislature passed bills allowing the use of snares for wolves, night hunting with night-vision goggles or other technology, hunting with bait, and a longer season. Legislators also mandated that the wolf population be reduced to 150 wolves, the minimum population for delisting. The last Montana wolf survey in 2017 counted about 625 wolves. Since then, FWP has estimated the population at around 800 wolves, based on hunter reports and computer modeling.

The Idaho Legislature also passed a bill allowing more extensive hunting and trapping, including a year-round wolf season on private land, night hunting, hunting from snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicle and allowing people to buy unlimited numbers of wolf tags for hunting, trapping and snaring.

As with Montana, the mandated goal is to reduce the population to the minimum of 150 wolves Idaho legislators said wolves kill too much livestock. The Idaho Fish and Game commission opposed the law, saying it invited federal intervention. Many say no other species is constrained to a minimum population.

A week ago, before the Montana FWP commission approved the killing of more wolves, the Biden administration chose not to oppose an 11th-hour Trump administration order to remove all wolves from endangered species protections. Even so, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Director for Ecological Services Gary Frazer told the Associated Press the Trump administration order was based upon a situation that now doesn’t exist because the states have made so many drastic changes.

Frazer told the AP the different states showed a common approach: legislatures and politically appointed wildlife commissions are taking determined steps to reduce populations.

“We're aware that circumstances have changed and we'll be watching closely to see how the population responds," Frazer told the AP last week.

The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, has kept an estimated 227 species from going extinct and has recovered about 40 species to the point where they could be delisted. More than half have been delisted in the past decade,

No delisted species has been relisted, but the vast majority – butterflies, lizards, etc. - are species that aren’t killed for sport like the wolf. So relisting would be not only politically unpopular, but it’s also unknown territory for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the Endangered Species Coalition and the Idaho Conservation League don’t want to wait to see what happens after the upcoming wolf season.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service seems reluctant to step back into the wolf fray. But our point is they have a responsibility to do so,” Goldman said.

On May 26, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Humane Society of the United States filed an emergency petition to relist the wolf under the Endangered Species Act. On June 16, another 50 organizations and individuals added their voices to the request for relisting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had until Aug. 24 to respond.

"On July 30, U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Don Beyer (D-VA), and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and a bipartisan group of 85 Representatives asked Haaland to reconsider the decision to delist the gray wolf. Their letter emphasized the support of more than 400 scientists calling for federal protections for wolves and said new state laws that allow for inhumane hunting practices threaten the species’ recovery."

On Thursday, the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation issued a statement praising the Biden administration for backing the wolf delisting.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com